Jay Pendergast: A Singular Man
By Steve O’Connor
My best guess is 1978. Summer workers for the Neighborhood Youth Corps had painted an Irish-themed mural on the back of a building facing Worthen Street. Naturally, after the dedication, the crowd meandered over to the Old Worthen. It was a beautiful day, a Saturday if memory serves, and I joined the throng. At some point, I found myself standing outside the old tavern in front of a table, upon which sat an old set of war pipes, a silver breastplate, a steel targe or buckler shield, several swords, a waist belt buckle from the uniform of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and a somewhat disjointed but fascinating collection of Irish antiquities.
Behind that table stood a gray-bearded, barrel-chested, pony-tailed man with rose-colored sunglasses, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette. This was clearly someone with whom one had to converse. The odd assortment of rarities together with his arcane knowledge of historical artifacts suggested a professor emeritus, but his ready smile and easy manner belied the stuffy seriousness I usually associate with such a person. When, finally, I introduced myself and asked his name, things began to fit into place. “You’re Jay Pendergast?” I had been hearing about this guy for a long time. It seemed that whenever anyone in Lowell discovered that I was interested in Irish history and literature, they would say, “You must know Jay Pendergast.” I didn’t. But here, at last, was the man himself. And this, as Captain Louis Renault told Rick Blaine in Casablanca, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Jay lived just beyond the Tyngsborough Bridge in a house perched on the bank above the Merrimack River, with his wife Maire and their children, Ciaran, and at that time, the baby, Cait. Maire is a Dubliner from Ship Street in “the Liberties” neighborhood, known in popular song as “the rebel Liberties.” (At the age of eighteen, Maire would go to Slattery’s Pub to listen to a gathering of local musicians, some of whome later formed a band called “The Chieftains.”) Jay met Maire during his five-year stint in Dublin, where he was working on a PhD and absorbing Dublin through every pore.
I became a regular at Jay’s Tyngsborough house, where I met a fascinating collection of people, including, of course, the aforementioned Maire; Dave Hardman, the horticulturist, Dr. Kiersey, the anesthesiologist, Rolly Perron, the farmer, Phil Chaput and Hank Garrity, collectors and antique dealers, and Jay’s long-time best friend, Charlie Panagiatakos, the chemist, and his wife, Marie.
Charlie had been granted a double promotion and entered Lowell High at the age of 12, wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase. He wasn’t into track or football. (I don’t believe Jay ever watched a competitive sports contest. He once expressed some confusion over whether the “Orioles” were a baseball or a football team and had little interest in the answer. When I told him that a new local soccer team was looking for a name, he suggested “the Poodles”).
At Lowell High, Charlie and a group of intellectual students who liked to talk about chemistry, math, and art, formed “The Barf Club.” A friend of one of the Barfers who attended Keith Academy came to one of their meetings, and brought another Keith boy, Jay Pendergast. Charlie describes himself in those days as “an oddball, brainy kind of fellow.” And of course, Jay would always hit it off with a smart oddball.
They graduated in 1955 into a rapidly changing America. Charlie tells me, “I became a beatnik. Then I became a hippie. Then finally just a mental case.” He still makes me laugh, and he made Jay laugh, too. They became great friends, shooting Super 8 movies in downtown Lowell in the 60’s and playing in an improvised garage band. (Jay played flute, but as he would admit, relied heavily on visual effects).
These were some of the characters who hung out on Riverbend Road, with Jay holding court, talking until the wee hours with some or all of these friends, often with a blazing fire in the wood-burning stove. If a party piece were necessary, he liked to recite “Sir Patrick Spens”:
The King sits in Dunferline toun,
Drinkin the blude-reid wine
‘O whaur will a get a skeely skipper
Tae sail this new ship o mine?’
Jay was a collector, probably from the time that his mother, a college librarian, brought home books that awoke his interests. He collected prints, coins, books, swords, military uniforms, arrowheads, and memorabilia of all kinds. He was in love with anything old, with anything that spoke to him of a vanished past. Every time I visited him, he had some new bit of history to show me: a clay Egyptian lamp, a signed letter from Edmund Kean, pages from a fifteenth century incunabula. One day, he produced an old silver spoon and handed me a jeweler’s loupe. The PR, that became clearly visible on the back of the tapered part of the handle, he said, stood for Paul Revere. “He sometimes used the Revere mark, and sometimes the simple PR.” The shop owner, unaware of what she had, had asked twenty dollars. “I almost hurt myself getting the money out,” Jay said, and he added, “That’s the whole game. You have to know what you have, or you have nothing.”
Jay always seemed to be grabbing at a past that might well vanish before he could collect it—save it from an oblivion that it didn’t deserve. One of the ceiling lights in his house wore the old POLICE lamp cover that once proclaimed the police station on Market Street. He always wanted to run in to any condemned building that was about to be taken down to see what he could salvage, to stop at any construction dig to pick through the piles of dirt, looking for arrowheads, shards of pottery or the polished stone head of a war club to add to his collection. When I complimented Jay and Maire on what I thought were new couches of a beautiful golden velour, he said, “They’re not new. I managed to purloin the curtain from the Strand Theater before they tore it down and had the couch and love seat re-covered with the material.”
These days, it’s difficult to be a Renaissance man. If you don’t have a degree in whatever it is you’re pursuing or opining on, people refuse to take you seriously. But Jay was interested in everything, wanted to know everything. A table at the Hollis Flea Market didn’t bring in much revenue, and Jay had quit his job at the Bartlett School. (He used to take his boat to work there—shoving off from his own dock, cruising down the river, tying up at the Lowell Motor Boat Club, and walking across the street). After he quit that job, he became what he referred to as “a gypsy professor,” teaching an array of classes at a dizzying number of universities and community colleges. He taught Film, Mythology, Archeology, Literature, Art History, Cultural Anthropology—the life of a gypsy professor was a struggle—more than a full-time workload with part-time pay and no benefits. His car, an old (naturally) Mercury Comet, was full of boxes of books and papers, and he told me he sometimes had to stop and remember what class he was going to teach. He said, “I’ll teach anything. Calculus? Yes. Give me the book. I got a wife and two kids. I’ll learn it and teach it.”
I remember my father laughing one day as he read The Lowell Sun. “That friend of yours is quite a guy,” he said. “There’s an article about Jay Pendergast, amateur archeologist. Two weeks ago, there was another article about Jay Pendergast, amateur film maker.” He was both, and more. As an amateur archeologist, he got a team from Harvard to come to Lowell to excavate the stone circle in LeBlanc Park, to try to determine if it might have been built by early Celts. They decided it was not so old as that, but who built it or why remains a mystery.
In 79’ I was accepted into a Master’s Program in Anglo-Irish Lit (literature written in English as opposed to Irish), at University College, Dublin, where Jay was still enrolled in the PhD program. He showed up, with Maire and Ciaran; first, there was a meeting with Roger McHugh, a department head at UCD about the status of Jay’s doctoral dissertation on Charles Maturin. Jay always had more than one iron in the fire, though. He was also working on a new scheme to import Irish gin to America. He had achieved a meeting at Irish Distilleries, to which he wore an ascot, thinking he would impress them with his urbane sophistication. Unfortunately, he said, “They kept staring at the ascot as if I had a big coke spoon hanging around my neck.” So, the Irish gin was left to later importers. However, Jay proceeded to introduce me to another great collection of people on the other side of the pond.
Jay Pendergast in Tunisia: 1968
They were all very fond of Jay and Maire. As long as I was a friend of theirs, I had the key to that society. There was Captain Hood, a retired Aer Lingus pilot, Tadgh McSweeny, the whimsical Cork artist, a defrocked Jesuit whose name I forget, and, in particular, a distinguished sculptor and restorer of paintings for the National Museum, George Laffin. These people took me under their wing after Jay had left, and I had another reason to be grateful for his friendship. (Note: There is a wonderful photo of George Laffin with one of his sculptures in Jim Higgins new collection of Irish Photos-Ireland: North and South).
Jay and I were stopped by a Guard in Dublin. Jay was driving a Morris Minor, for which, of course, he had not bothered to get the necessary insurance sticker. He gave an Oscar-worthy performance of the clueless, dumb Yank who had no idea about…insurance stickers? “I’m sorry, Officer! I’ll get one tomorrow!” The Guard was mollified and said, “Well, I should write you up, but I haven’t got me biro.” I think Ireland was where Jay learned valuable lessons about how you could get a lot done with “a bit of chat.” I should note that the Hibernian capital in which Jay had moved was truly, as the song puts it, “Dublin city in the rare ould times.” At McDaid’s Pub, for example, he might have a pint with Paddy Kavanaugh, Pearse Hutchinson. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin, Brendan Behan, or Liam O’Flaherty. Maire recalls how, working as a waitress in another Dublin bar/restaurant, she saw a drunken Peter O’Toole come in one night with a severed pig’s head under his arm. In Dublin, Jay learned to live by his wits; Maire recalls how he would stock the car with items he had purchased at Ging’s of Dame Street, (“theatrical costumier, fancy dress, carnival and novelties”). They would drive out to the Cliffs of Moher, where, out of his trunk, he would resell his purchases to French and German tourists while Maire built a fire by the side of the road and cooked up scrambled eggs.
When I finished my degree in Dublin, I had the opportunity to work in France, and ended up staying there for a year or so. Jay sent me a letter requesting that I search out used furniture stores that would be willing to export French armoires to the U.S. I did spend some time in France hunting around antique stores and talking to managers of various magasins d’ameublement. Finally, I sent Jay a report which I’m afraid was not optimistic, and the armoires went the way of the Irish gin.
One afternoon after my return, I drove down the rutted moonscape of a road to his house. Maire was tending her plants. The kids were playing with the dog, and below the steep bank, the broad Merrimack swept by. “Would you like a glass of Jamie?” he said. (Jameson was his drink. A bartender at some Lowell dive we stopped into once said, “We don’t have Jameson. You want Murphy’s?” Without batting an eye, Jay responded, “No. Murphy’s is filth.”) So, on this afternoon, Jay poured a glass of Jamie and we began to talk about James Joyce. “I wonder if his grandson is still alive,” Jay mused.
“I believe he is,” I said. “I think he lives in Paris. He’s Joyce’s literary executor; all the Joyce scholars hate him.”
“You think we could contact him?”
A few minutes later I had procured a number through French information of a Stephen Joyce in Paris and Jay urged me to dial. A man answered. “Allo, oui?”
Holy shit! “Je cherche le Monsieur Stephen Joyce?”
“Oui. C’est moi! Que voulez-vous?” he barked.
“Vous etes le petite-fils…” It struck me that if he was James Joyce’s grandson, he surely spoke English. “Then, you are James Joyce’s grandson?”
“Yes! What the hell do you want?” He sounded angry. I handed the phone to Jay. This is where my old friend shone. He wasn’t just a bullshitter. He was a master bullshitter, an imaginative artist. On the spot, he concocted a story: he was part of a committee representing a few local colleges in Massachusetts who were organizing a celebration of James Joyce, and this committee had decided to extend an invitation to Stephen Joyce, the great writer’s grandson and literary executor. They could offer a stipend, and air fare would be paid for. There was a bit of negotiating over Mr. Joyce’s wife’s air fare, and Jay offered to provide for that as well. They exchanged information, and fifteen minutes later, Jay and I were sitting there, in shock. James Joyce’s grandson was coming to Lowell. I said, “But Jay—there isn’t any committee. There isn’t any money.”
“Jayzus, O’Connor!” he said, disappointed in my lack of cunning. (He had picked up the Jayzus expression in Dublin. He was also fond of Elizabethen oaths such as, “God’s teeth!”) “Jayzus! There’s no committee now! But when I tell them that I have Stephen Joyce on the line, there will be a committee in short order!” And there was. Jay got a few colleges to ante up, and Stephen Joyce spoke at what was then the University of Lowell, UNH, and the Harvard Club of Cambridge. (Note: Stephen Joyce died in January of this year).
Another of Jay’s projects was to make Lowell and Kilkenny sister cities and bring the Lord Mayor of Kilkenny to Lowell for Irish Cultural Week; I believe that would have been in 1986. I went along with Jay to visit Mayor Kennedy, who loved the idea. It was done, and not long after, we were all doing a pub crawl with Phil Hogan, the Lord Mayor of Kilkenny, and his wife. After leaving Kantakis’s Bar, I remember leaning over the bridge railing with the His Honor and talking about the Irish who had dug the city’s canals. Within a week, the Mayor seemed to know every old lady at St. Patrick’s Church and what it was that ailed her. Phil Hogan is today the European Commissioner for Trade and confirmed on June 9th of this year that he will run for Director General of the World Trade Organization. Another interesting person we would never have met if it were not for Jay Pendergast.
Jay was finally awarded his PhD from University College, Dublin, sadly, a bit late to do his career a lot of good. He never lost his interest in Irish Literature; he was the only person I knew who read the entire three volume Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, but, in what turned out to be the later years of his life, he refocused on an interest he had had since boyhood: Native Americans. He published two books, The Bend in the River, a pre-history and contact period history of what is now Lowell and its surroundings, and Life Along the Merrimac: Collected Histories of the Native Americans Who Lived Along Its Banks. He took his research seriously and once drove up to St. Francis in Quebec to meet with some of the descendants of those who had been Lowell’s Pawtucket Indians.
The last time I saw Jay, we sat on his porch, with a glass of Jamie of course, watching the river flow by. He did look a little tired. He had had one heart attack a couple of years before, but he never changed his lifestyle much. He was so full of life that he refused to consider death. I remember that final conversation well. We had heard that a guy we knew had left his wife, and Jay shook his head and said, “I could no more leave Maire than I could cut off my own arm.” He went on to say that he loved his home by the river. “As soon as I get up on Frost Road, there are people on my bumper—they’re in a rush to get up to Ayotte’s and get a case of Bud Lite or something. I could stay right here perfectly content and never leave. You know, I’m rereading Samuel de Champlain’s five-volume memoire describing his early explorations of the New World. Unbelievably interesting! Honestly, I’m at the point now, where, if it happened after 1680—I’m not interested.” I laughed. A remark that only Jay would make.
Not long after, on Memorial Day weekend of 1997, Maire called me with the news that Jay had died. In my life, only the death of my own parents struck me with such a sense of loss. I feel it again as I write these words. I drove out to see Maire; the emptiness in the house was palpable, and, as we all know, there’s really nothing to say. At his funeral, I went up to the church loft and played the old lament, “Lochaber No More.” I saw Maire and Ciaran and Cait in the church below me standing near the polished casket, and my tears rolled down onto the violin as I played. I was sorry for them, and to be honest, for myself, too. An era in my life was over.
Jay’s family and his friends have met for lunch every year in June since his death, except of course, 2020. We’ve all gotten older, and sometimes, talking to Ciaran, I have the odd feeling that I’m talking to Jay. In any case, when I see him and Maire and Cait and Charlie Panagiatakos and Marie and Coco and Rolly Perron and Dave Hardman and Phil Chaput—in some way—I’m back in the house on the riverbank enjoying this rare collection of people. And I feel that Jay is there too, maybe just in the next room, pouring a Jameson.